Sometimes it takes overnight sleepovers in slave dwellings a long time to materialize. The sleepover at Hofwyl – Broadfield Plantation State Historic Site fits that category. In April of 2014, Patt Gunn who was a board member of the Slave Dwelling Project; James Brown, a fellow Civil War reenactor, and I visited the site which is located near Brunswick, GA. Unlike my home state of South Carolina, Georgia State Parks seemed to realize early in the process that the Slave Dwelling Project meant them no harm. The park manager, Bill Giles, attended the Slave Dwelling Project Conference which was held in Savannah, GA in September of 2014 and he was the one to initiate the process for the sleepover.
The stage was now set for a productive sleepover in the slave cabin which would occur on Friday, May 22, 2015. I would be joined by Prinny Anderson for her fifteenth sleepover and Leslie Stainton for her first. Surprisingly and unplanned, we all met in the parking lot and had an enthusiastic discussion about the stay.
According to its brochure: “Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, once a thriving rice plantation on the Altamaha River between Darien and Brunswick, provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives and culture of the Georgia rice coast from 1800 to 1915.”
“Hofwyl-Broadfield stems from the “Broadface” property, purchased around 1806 by William Brailsford, a Charleston merchant of English descent. From virgin cypress swamps along the Altamaha River, Brailsford carved a rice plantation which he renamed “Broadfield.” After Brailsford’s death the land passed to his son-in-law Dr. James M. Troup, brother of Georgia Governor George Troup. By the time of Dr. Troup’s death in 1849 the plantation included 7,300 acres and 357 slaves. The name “Hofwyl” was added in the early 1850s when Ophelia Troup and her husband, George Dent, constructed the house that stands today at Hofwyl-Broadfield. It was named for the school Dent attended in Switzerland.”
Meeting Leslie Stainton
Leslie Stainton is an editor and works in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. She is a member of the Slave Dwelling Project and of the group Coming to the Table and co-presented with Prinny Anderson at the Slave Dwelling Project Conference which was held in Savannah, GA in September 2014.
Leslie’s desire to spend a night in a former slave dwelling was impressive but what impressed me the most was that she was conducting in depth research about her slave owning ancestors. Prior to the stay, she had already spent two weeks in the area delving into that history. The results of Leslie’s research will be contained in a book she is writing.
Because of the Slave Dwelling Project, I know many descendants of slave owners, many of whom have spent nights with me in extant slave dwellings. I expressed to her that there are some people that when presented with the information about their ancestors owning slaves they, like Ben Affleck, go into a state of denial. I further added that those that are as forthcoming as she is about that type of information usually become outcast among the rest of their family members.
Sleeping in slave dwellings at almost seventy sites, I have seen many amazing trees. The oak alleys are most impressive at Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, Boone Hall Plantation in Mt. Pleasant, SC and Wormsloe Plantation in Savannah, GA.
Any visitor to Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation would be impressed by the collection of oak trees on the sites. From the oak alleys to the trees that were planted sporadically, they all made me wonder about the European and Native Americans who once occupied the site. Even if history is not your thing, visiting the site to view the trees alone will be a day well spent.
I am certain that if the trees could talk, they would not have anything good to say about the pain that the enslaved endured on Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation. It is my hope and desire that none of them ever bore “strange fruit.”
Preservationists and historians would not be impressed that one side of the slave dwelling is currently being used as rest rooms but I’ve learned that when we push too hard we often end up with nothing. Additionally, I have seen former slave dwellings used for many other things and I am a firm believer that we should allow these dwellings to evolve and be used as the owners see fit. To that end, the ability to display and interpret the other half of the cabin as housing for the enslaved is a blessing. We can save that restroom fight for another day, because to win that one, desire and the resources to build or relocate the restrooms to another building will be necessary.
Based on our experience with slave dwellings, Prinny and I involved Leslie as we speculated on why the doors of the cabin were facing away from the “big house”. Up to that point, all of the slave dwellings that we had encountered had the doors that faced the “big house” so that all entrance and exit into that structure could be monitored by the owners.
Inside the space, we speculated on how many students and chaperones we could fit into the space in the future should we be allowed to use the space as a classroom in the future. We concluded that if the beds, which would not have been there during the time of slavery, were removed, we could fit about five people in each of the two rooms. Leslie, Prinny and I slept in the breezeway and with the proper configuration in the future, we may be able to squeeze one more person into that space.
Involving African Americans
Like my visit to St. Simons Island, Georgia for an overnight sleepover in the cabins there, one major concern is getting more African Americans involved in the activities at the plantation. We agreed that a future sleepover in the cabin must involve students and their chaperones. The possibility was discussed that the space attached to the kitchen that was historically living space for the enslaved and is currently being used for storage can be repurposed for interpretation and provide more space for a sleepover.
Though sparse, African Americans did show up for the activities on Saturday and I had the opportunity to interact with them. They all expressed interest in participating in a future sleepover at the site. This is certainly a foundation of which the site can build and the Slave Dwelling Project is willing to do its part.
Words of Leslie Stainton
The carpenter Sam managed to hide for more than a month before being captured, jailed, and shipped south. The year was 1807. I don’t know Sam’s age. I don’t know where he came from or who in Savannah claimed to own him, but I do know the name of the planter in Brunswick who purchased him that July for $550 and waited nearly two months to receive his unhappy property.
I know Sam was caught in early September 1807 and sailed south two days later, presumably in irons, and I imagine William Crawford, the planter who bought him, sent boat hands to fetch his recalcitrant new slave. What became of Sam afterward is a mystery. Maybe William Crawford was a forgiving man who welcomed the young carpenter gently onto his plantation. Maybe he had Sam flogged. I’d like to believe the captive from Savannah found some pleasure in his new surroundings—maybe a wife, children, friends—and that these were not sold away from him nor he from them.
But I can’t know. I have only this faint outline of Sam’s story, culled from a ledger I discovered in an archive in Savannah the day before I joined Joe McGill and Prinny Anderson on an overnight stay at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, near Brunswick, as part of the Slave Dwelling Project. Sam’s story is one of countless narratives, small and large, that hint at the scope of the suffering endured by African Americans in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. As Joe reminds us, there were over four million enslaved Americans at the end of the Civil War. That’s a lot of sorrow.
I thought of these things, and of the carpenter Sam, as I lay in the slave cabin at Hofwyl, courting sleep and trying to fathom what it must have meant to be confined to a place like this for the entirety of your life, knowing you’d never be free. Unlike Sam, I’d driven down from Savannah by choice, confident that after my night in the slave cabin I’d get into my car and head north to Michigan, to that destination we all cherish most—home. I didn’t have to wonder if I’d ever see my husband again, didn’t have to part from friends or children or a familiar and beloved place. Didn’t have to rise at the clang of someone else’s bell. Didn’t have to forage for my breakfast. Didn’t have to fear being whipped or raped or chained should I exercise free will.
The night was strangely peaceful. My mind wasn’t. Not far from where I lay—from the city where Sam took up a new and unwanted existence in the fall of 1807—my ancestors practiced the dark arts of slaveholding. I thought of them, too, as I tossed in my sleeping bag, wondering why and how. I got no answer, only this image, toward dawn, in some sort of dream state: of a hawk descending on a sleeping cat, talons extended, beak at the ready. The bird caught the cat and soared into the sky, and as it did, drilled its beak into the captive’s head until blood poured down onto the earth where I slept.
HOFWYL-BROADFIELDS PLANTATION – An Ever-Changing World
Before the Civil War, Hofwyl-Broadfields was an extensive rice plantation, one of several holdings of the five generation Brailsford-Troup-Dent family who also had properties inland and in Charleston, SC. Today, visitors can tour the main house, constructed by the mid-19th century, the separate kitchen building and slave dwelling, and various structures associated with the late 19th – 20th century dairy business. The site is a mix of open live-oak plantings, meadows, thickets, and marshland where there once were rice fields.
The simple two-family slave dwelling where we spent the night still stands, a reminder of the skill and labor of the Africans and African Americans who made life in this beautiful life possible for the plantation owners. Their connection to the site lasted until recent times: the last African American directly associated with Hofwyl lived part-time in this very cabin into the 1970’s. But a review of the area’s history and reflection on the lives of the people who lived here for over 200 years reveals stories of change, transition, and uncertainty.
As English settlement of the Georgia coast began, the first wave of planters in the Hofwyl-Broadfields area came from Charleston to create rice plantations in the marshes. These planters lived back-and-forth lives, traveling regularly from the city to the wilderness, from Charleston to the territory between present-day Darien and Brunswick. They struggled to establish profitable agricultural enterprises, often as absentee landlords, and success was an uncertain thing.
The rice plantations they were attempting to create had to be located at the ever-changing former marshes whose flooding and draining was managed by dikes, canals and gates. The most valued enslaved workers of that time and place had been taken from present-day Sierra Leone, people with deep, unchanging knowledge of rice-growing. They knew exactly how to guide the water and the land to inter-mix just so for rice plants to thrive. Consequently, they also lived near the water’s edge, close to the high tides and unpredictable storms that might overturn their lives unexpectedly. In the 1804 hurricane at Hofwyl-Broadfields, 70 enslaved people were swept away or killed by the wind and water.
Although many of the first group of planters ultimately retreated from the area, a second wave of English planters made the transition from living in the fashionable and lively city of Charleston to living on their remote, isolated lands. Their on-site presence and attention probably contributed to the eventual success of rice-growing, for a time. But as soon as they could, they took up a transitory lifestyle, moving inland and up country during the malarial summer months.
The plantation owners’ lifestyle dictated the lives of their enslaved people, on the move from one household to another. Some of the planters’ city-dwelling enslaved people were uprooted to living in the wilderness, with or without their family members. When the planter families’’ fortunes flourished and they could afford to move to an inland property in the summer, some of the enslaved people who worked in the house would have taken up the same transitory lifestyle as the owner family, but not necessarily in the company of their own families. I reflect on the uncertainty they may have experienced each season – while I’m gone, will my partner be safe? In good health? How will my baby grow? Who will look after her?
The enslaved people lived with another, persistent level of uncertainty, determined by the social and economic circumstances of their owner family determined. A planter family marriage, a new child, acquisition of a new property, for the enslaved people could mean being given away or transferred elsewhere. A business loss, a social failure, illness, an accident or a gambling debt might result in the sale of enslaved people, separation of family members. The people of Hofwyl-Broadfields could not have been ignorant of the behavior of the infamous Pierce Butler, on neighboring Butler Island, who eventually sold over 400 enslaved people to pay his gambling debts, commemorated as the Weeping Time.
The plantation era along the coast largely came to an end with the Civil War. In 1862, Union troops occupied the Georgia and South Carolina islands and river mouths. The coastal planter families fled to their properties inland, abandoning their farms and their enslaved workers. This transition for the enslaved people was fraught with changes. Thousands of them fled to the coast, to the Union army. Who knew what they would find and how they would be treated?
At the end of the Civil War, emancipation brought enormous changes. The formerly enslaved were free to choose, free to manage their lives, free to reunite with their families and do their best to stay together. Some were able to make substantial changes in their lives and find new means of living far from the plantations, but many had few options but to return to agricultural labor, often back on the plantations they had known.
The Troup-Dent family at Hofwyl-Broadfields eventually returned to its coastal property, but had to transition from depending only on rice-growing, and they added a dairy. They also learned how to survive with new roles. Isabel and Miriam Dent worked in the dairy alongside their employees, and Isabel rode the milk delivery cart around the countryside.
Over the course of 200 and more years, this transitional strip of river, marsh and solid land – Georgia’s coast – went through environmental, political, economic and social transitions every few decades. One thing that endures at Hofwyl- Broadfields is the memory of the scores of enslaved people whose labor and skill with rice or with dairy cattle kept the Brailsfords, the Troups and the Dents alive.